John 6:24-29 So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
Free food always gets the people flocking. You want the people to support you? Give them food. Many people are convinced that the secret behind successful student ministry is the pizza principle: If you feed them, they will come. The truth is that it applies to all age groups. Grandparents can buy the grandkids with Kitkats and Smarties; fast food will buy the teenager’s compliance; a chicken in every pot and KFC in every lunchbox will get the masses to vote for you. As the German proverb goes, “Liebe geht durch den Magen” – the pathway to love runs via the stomach. We can all be bought with food.
In 2012, then national commissioner of the South African Police Force Bheki Cele spearheaded a drive to get the police officers fit and trim, to have six-packs and not kegs around their waists. In a broadcast speech, Cele said that police officers must “walk straight – stomach in, chest out, not stomach out, chest in.” Well, to use that language, it seems the people running after Jesus by the shore of the lake were not walking all that straight. They were walking “stomach out, chest in” – you see, the previous day, Jesus fed the 5,000 with 12 baskets of leftovers, and now the people are hungry for more, impelled by their bellies to the one they believe to be the bread king. But Jesus sees through them. Luther comments: “The people flock to the preaching of the Gospel as if they were genuine students of it. But appearances deceive – all they want is a full stomach and to satisfy their own needs, and so they take the Gospel for a doctrine of the stomach teaching them to gorge themselves and to booze. This is how all people think, from the first to the last…” (Sermon on John 6:26, 5. November 1530) We are all by nature theologians of the stomach. Stomach out, chest in.
And so this is what we work for, this is what we hunger after, this is what we want. The greed for food today, tomorrow and forever is what drives our markets, fuels corruption, what makes us grip our wallets tightly closed and what makes people oppress other people. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” cried the Corinthians – isn’t this how it was meant to be? “Yes,” says the apostle, but “God will destroy both one and other.” And yet, that’s the bread we literally burn ourselves out working for. Temporal bread. Bread for our bellies. Bread that does not last. Bread that is gone when the next drought hits, bread that is taken from us when the taxman cometh. Bread that we continually hunger for until we can eat no more. Bread that fills us one moment, and leaves us hungry the next. Bread that cannot rescue us from our corrupted condition of sin or from our sentence of death. I can eat the Sasko Seedloaf or the Albany White or the Bunny chow from Durban, tomorrow I will be hungry, and the next day I am dead.
Jesus speaks to the “stomach out, chest in” crowd of yesterday and today and directs our concern elsewhere. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. Jesus is posing an absolute contrast between physical and spiritual “food” here. Now Jesus is not saying that hunger is not a real need and that people should not work for their food. We know that he takes hunger seriously by the very fact that he feeds the 5,000 instead of leaving them to starve. He has compassion on them. He is God, and God created food and the stomach, demand and supply. This is why He sends rain and sunshine at their due season and why the earth yields a harvest at the right time. Indeed, the Word of God condemns laziness: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10) Thus we are commended to seek work and to be industrious. At the same time, Jesus directs your attention elsewhere. He is pointing you to your real need, your underlying hunger, your fundamental need.
And this is one of those points where the church has something to say to our world, to the country in which we live. As we look over our history with its many ups and downs, we see a history of people fighting over bread, fighting over resources and the control of them. Our eyes fill with tears and our hearts with sorrow as we see how whites have oppressed blacks, how Afrikaners oppressed the English and the English the bushmen and the Xhosa and the Boer women and children in the first concentration camps, we see strife between the landowners and the landless, between the powerful and the powerless, between the haves and the have-nots, between criminals and fearful citizens, between the different tribes, and also between the locals and the foreigners, we hear demands for justice and retribution, for Uhuru at the cost of blood, the universities are burning and the fires of racism are being stoked once again, cry, cry the beloved country, the Penny Sparrows among the whites making disgusting remarks about blacks, a groundswell of hatred among some blacks rising up against whites.
There are no simple, quick answers to any of these things. But too long there has been a painful silence on the part of too many, and perhaps on our part also. At the same time, we in the church cannot assume that we will be seen as credible speakers when we do speak, for much has been said and done in the name of the church – even the Lutheran church – and in the name of Christ which defies all basic human decency and which certainly does not accord with his teaching. In the face of all of these things there is great need for repentance, and great need, urgent need for reconciliation. In fact, the future of this country hangs in the balance. But before we can speak of answers, we must speak of problems. Before we can speak of the solution, we must first face and speak of the real crisis. Here the eternal Word of God has something very credible to say. The Lord points us all to what we should be striving for first of all – not for power and control and resources and bread, but for food that does not perish, for the food that endures to eternal life. He is saying that we all, black and brown and white and yellow, we are all united by a common need, a common hunger that is far deeper than the hunger for bread and resources: We are united by emptiness, our real hunger is a shared yearning for meaning, for fulfillment, for purpose, for true joy, for eternal dignity, indeed, for salvation, for reconciliation, for restoration, for life with Him who made us all. It is for this reason that Jesus calls blessedthose who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
This righteousness, this food, the bread that satisfies this need comes only as gift, a daily gift from the Son of Man, on whom is the seal of God the Father. It is the gift of faith, the gift of righteousness, true dignity before God for all who are under the blood of Christ and showered in the waters of holy baptism. Many people do not like to hear this answer. Not then, not now. It strips us of our pretenses and says that none of us is better before God than another, that we are all equally needy and equally empty, and that to become pleasing to God we must all become beggars. When the “stomach out, chest in” crowd indignantly challenges Jesus: What must we do, to be doing the works of God?, they are saying: What do you mean? Are we not doing the works of God? Are we not doing enough? Who are you to accuse us like this? Jesus answers that true godliness comes from God, not from good intentions or pious self-righteousness.This is the work (singular!) of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.Jesus responds to accusations of hate with gift language. Jesus is saying that the language of righteousness and dignity and salvation and satisfaction before God is the language of gift, the language of divine monergism, the language of God’s doing located outside of us and given into us. Even faith is God’s work. And by faith Jesus means what the people receive and what the people do. As we in the church struggle to come up with answers to racism (past and present), to the fires and the power games and the mind games and the politicians’ many promises raging all around us, we find here that Jesus wants us to make room for him and to let him do his work in us and with us and to us and through us, that we turn from real hunger to real food and from real problems to real solutions that do not fail, to the gift of God in Christ, the living bread from heaven.
What our country needs is faithful Christians who soak up the Lord’s vitality from their daily bread and burn it up in His service, realizing their neediness and bearing witness to the Bread of Life we all need. As Rev. Bill Cwirla once said, “This is much more than a static symbol or a clever figure of speech. To come to Jesus is to draw upon the energies and vitalities of living Bread and never again be hungry… Here is Bread the way the world cannot bake Bread, a Bread that satisfies eternally. A Bread filled with the abundance of the vitalities and energies of God. A Bread that doesn’t simply provide health and energy for this life, but the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Every other food is transformed into the eater. But this Bread transforms the one who eats it. ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’Such a Bread has come down from heaven to feed you. He has been broken in death for you. He is here present to feed you with the promise that those who come to feast on Him in faith will never again hunger or thirst but will be satisfied. Jesus fed five thousand with barley bread. He feeds us with living Bread, Himself, the Bread of Life. He is our daily food against sin and all that sin has done to us.” This must be our answer to the brokenness in our church and to the brokenness in our land. May the living God grant us the faith – the words – the actions – the credibility – the wisdom – the patience – the courage – and above all, the love – to give it. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria – Pastor Karl Böhmer